Calling for Work? Just Use the Phone

Talking on the phone has become a big pain in the ass. I don’t mean to suggest that I’m one of those people who can’t be bothered actually talking to someone in realtime because I’m just all too busy. In fact, quite the opposite: I miss the land line. I miss the days when a really long network of copper wire and physical switches connected me to someone else. No 2.4Ghz interference from the microwave or the car alarm, no dead zones, no dropout, and no network latency. Voice communication technology today is fraught with quality and reliability problems. This is progress? This is ridiculous.

The Decay of Voice Communication

I’m a consultant, and I work out of my home. I spend hours a day on the phone, and I use a cordless phone system with a wired headset to interact with customers and colleagues all day. I want to make sure that I can hear them without interruption, delay, or interference. I want to make sure that they can hear me, too. Even with my high quality phone system, I feel a bit guilty using a cordless handset, since I do encounter some occasional audio dropout.

I communicate regularly with people who rely on…well…less reliable communication channels: VoIP, mobile, Bluetooth, wireless. There are now offices with no physical phone line and no actual phones. Some people sit in front of their computer, talking with clients and colleagues over free VoIP services with no headset, with all the noise of the office around them. And we all know someone who insists on using a speakerphone, even though there’s nobody else in the room. But I think my favorite is Skype over a public Wi-Fi network, using a Bluetooth headset. While screen-sharing. And by favorite, I mean, “Goddam, this pisses me off—you sound like crap!” Now throw a combination of these people onto a conference call…it’s distracting, it’s unproductive, and it’s unprofessional.

When did this become acceptable? Has our tolerance of low fidelity music and video crept into our common communication norms, too? I don’t think so. I would assert that it is not acceptable to submit professional colleagues to the piss-poor call quality we’ve all come to take for granted while chatting with friends. Friends and family may put up with dropped calls and echo, but these are the people we do business with—quite likely the people who pay us. We should show them some respect.

I’ve been on numerous calls with customers who complain or make snarky comments about how it all worked just fine when people used a plain old phone. Remember that? There’s a retronym for that now: POTS—plain old telephone service. It just worked. It still does, but nobody seems willing to pay a whole $30 a month to use it anymore. Instead they subject their colleagues to dropped calls, static, interference, audio drops, echos, delayed audio, half-duplex conversations, and noise…so much noise.

There’s a science to listening. When you consider signal-to-noise, distractions, and the human brain’s limited ability to filter out all of the crap and focus, we’re fighting a losing battle. Don’t we want our colleagues to understand our words and ideas? Then why do we make it so hard for them?

Fixing the Problem

I’m not just here to rant—I have some suggested solutions. There are some basic things that everyone can do to minimize the distractions commonly associated with today’s business voice communications:

  • First and foremost, use a POTS line if you have one. Consider getting one if you don’t. Seriously, the monthly cost is about the same as two drinks in Manhattan. Just get a phone line—it’s a tax-deductible business expense.
  • Use a headset, preferably a wired one. Not the dangly thing that came with your mobile phone—a real headset with a mic that sticks out near your mouth.
  • Avoid the temptation of using a hands-free speakerphone. It typically introduces noise, echo, and reverb.
  • Avoid Bluetooth…period.
  • When using a mobile phone, try to isolate yourself to eliminate background noise, and avoid moving around too much to minimize audio drops (“can you hear me now?” isn’t as funny in the boardroom).
  • Avoid taking Skype or other VoIP calls on any wireless network, let alone a shared, public network. Too many factors can negatively impact the call quality.
  • When using VoIP, do not use your computer’s built-in mic and speakers (see Use a headset, above). Again, it’s the noise and echo.
  • And finally, use your mute button! You can eliminate a lot of background noise and distraction by muting when you’re not talking.

When did this all get so complicated? Technology is supposed to make things easier, isn’t it? It seems in this case that it’s added all of these social protocols that we never had to worry about before. Call me old, call me cranky (both are relatively accurate), but however you call me, just use the damned phone, OK?

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  1. Hmm. I use the Ooma and Google Voice for my day-to-day calls, and I’ve experienced no problems with voice quality. Also, Google’s calling within Gmail is pretty cool.

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